Kobe Bryant might not be the greatest player to ever put on a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, but he's not far behind Magic Johnson. If he accomplishes five more things, he'll pass the legendary point guard and become the top dog in the premier franchise's history.
Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Kobe has had an excellent career. And even though it's been unfolding in fantastic fashion over the past 17 years, he's still playing at an insanely high level.
With five NBA titles, 14 All-Star game selections, an MVP award and countless other honors under his belt, it's clear that Kobe is one of the best players ever to lace up his sneakers on the hard court.
So, what must he accomplish during the last few years of his tenure with the Lakers to ensure that he's remembered as the greatest player in franchise history?
Let's begin with the most obvious.
Everything about this picture must come true again, save the number of fingers that Kobe Bryant is holding up on his left hand.
Kobe needs to add to his collection of rings and start hoarding them on two hands instead of just one. It's not like his career total of five championships is shabby, but a sixth title pushes him over the top.
This is the single most important accomplishment to the Black Mamba and for good reason. Until he experiences a little bit of deja vu while being handed the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy yet again, he's not going to be able to ascend to the top of the Los Angeles Lakers' ladder of historical greats.
If you exclude the myriad of Boston Celtics players and legends who were able to attain glory more than six times, Robert Horry is the only player in NBA history with at least seven rings. And it's not like the career journeyman is going to challenge Kobe for Lakers supremacy.
The sixth title is a magical one for Kobe because of where it puts him on the career leaderboard. That sought-after ring would tie him with Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, although it would top the total that the artist formerly known as Lew Alcindor was able to earn in purple and gold.
It would also push him past Minneapolis Lakers legends like George Mikan, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin.
Finally—and this trails only passing Air Jordan in its importance—it would give Kobe more titles than Magic Johnson.
Without earning No. 6, Kobe can't get to No. 1.
While Kobe Bryant must match Michael Jordan on the championship leaderboard, he must move past the greatest player of all time in career scoring to earn the top spot in Los Angeles Lakers' history.
That's not all Kobe is shooting for, though. He's got his sights set on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's seemingly untouchable record of 38,387 career points scored, a number that would necessitate moving past Karl Malone as well. However, for the purposes of this article, finishing atop this category would simply be gravy.
It's enough just to medal. Passing Wilt Chamberlain and M.J. would do the trick just fine.
As of Dec. 18, Kobe has scored 30,222 points in his illustrious career, one that dates back to the 1996-97 season when he left Lower Merion and bypassed college basketball for a shot at NBA glory. That was by no means the last shot Kobe took in his career.
If No. 24 somehow maintains his torrid scoring rate throughout the rest of the 2012-13 campaign, averaging 29.5 points per game during the remainder of the 82-game stretch, he'll finish the season with 31,903 points in his career. Yes, I'm rounding down.
That's good enough for him to move past Wilt, but he'd still trail Jordan by 389 points. That's not going to be much of a challenge for him during the 2013-14 campaign.
Of course, this is operating under the assumption that he continues to light it up from everywhere on the court. If his scoring average drops to a hypothetical 25 points per contest from Dec. 19 forward, it would take him an additional 83 games to reach Jordan's 32,292 career points.
Even that gives him an estimated date that falls in the 2013-14 season with plenty of room to spare.
Whether Kareem's record remains untouched is still up in the air, but passing Jordan seems to be a pretty safe bet.
Somewhat surprisingly (okay fine, very surprisingly), Kobe Bryant has only been handed the Maurice Podoloff Trophy once in his career. However, this solitary MVP award does not accurately represent the remarkable career that this shooting guard has been able to put together for the Los Angeles Lakers.
If MVPs were the lone measuring stick for historical greatness, Bryant would trail Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Bob Pettit, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash in the player hierarchy. Some of those names definitely belong above Bryant's, but certainly not all of them.
Taking home this top individual honor would be a nice achievement, but it's not a necessary one. What is essential is that Bryant finish high in the voting at least twice more.
MVP award shares are a much more accurate representation of a player's career. Take these two hypothetical players, for example. The following chart shows imaginary five-year careers and displays how each player finished in the MVP voting at the conclusion of each season:
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5|
|Player B||No votes||No votes||No votes||1||No votes|
Which player was better? Player B won the only MVP award given to either of the players, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that he had a better career. Apparently, Player A sustained a superior level of excellence throughout the duration of what must have been an abundantly impressive career.
And that's the problem that I have with judging players by looking at MVPs in a vacuum.
MVP award shares take the percentage of the total voting points that a player receives in any given year and gives them that percentage of an MVP. If a player is unanimously given the award, he'd be given a full MVP award share. If he receives half of the total possible voting points, he'd receive 0.5 award shares.
This allows us to sum career MVP award shares and create a new set of standings.
Kobe may have only won the 2007-08 award, but he's been voted into the top five during every season since 2001-02, with 2004-05 serving as the lone exception. As a result, his 4.054 career MVP award shares trail only Duncan (4.207) and LeBron (4.389).
The margin is close enough that this year's vote could easily tip the scales in Kobe's favorite, but rest assured that no active player will catch him anytime soon. Nash sits at No. 4 with a relatively meager total of 2.429.
Historically, Kobe is just shy of the top 10 (per Basketball-Reference.com):
|Name||Career MVP Award Shares|
Now, a few quick observations.
First, it's tough to argue against this stat being a nice barometer for historical greatness. It's by no means something that should be used as the be-all and end-all, but its a nice starting point.
Second, the company that LeBron James finds himself in at the relatively young age of 27 is simply staggering. He truly has a chance to finish at the top of the leaderboard.
Third, there's a drop-off after Kobe once again. That's purely coincidental, but it's interesting nevertheless.
Finally, Kobe has a chance to ascend up the rankings rather dramatically. One more year of earning at least 0.5 award shares (something he's done twice in his career) would push him all the way to No. 6, although No. 7 is more realistic because it's hard to believe that LeBron wouldn't earn a sizable slice of the voting pie as well.
Pushing past Bill Russell, something that would take two more excellent seasons, would be a nice goal for the Mamba.
Based on the ridiculously few number of superstars who have managed to play out their entire careers with a single franchise, this would indeed be an accomplishment. The number of players who meet this criteria dwindles even further during the modern era.
Kobe Bryant is well on his way to spending more years with a single team than any player in the history of the NBA.
In just a few seasons, he'll move past John Stockton (19 with the Utah Jazz) and Reggie Miller (18 with the Indiana Pacers). Kobe is already alone in third, having spent 17 consecutive seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's not essential that he plays long enough to surpass Stockton's record. It is completely necessary, however, that he remains on this list and doesn't ever put on another uniform.
The only memory that we can have of Kobe is one of him wearing purple and gold. Just like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, James Worthy and Magic Johnson, the shooting guard must retire in the same uniform that he began his career in.
And yes, being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Lakers is utterly irrelevant here.
The serial position effect is going to come into play for Kobe Bryant, just as it does for most other historical greats.
As noted psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus postulated, we humans have a tendency to recall the earliest and latest items in a list of events in a chronological sequence before we remember what happened in the middle. These principles are commonly known as the primacy effect and recency effect, respectively.
The recency effect will come into play if Kobe attempts to play basketball in the NBA for far longer than he should. If the embedded picture becomes a more frequent reality, and injuries drastically inhibit Kobe's ability to dominate the opposition on a nightly basis, his legacy will suffer.
As a point of clarification, the recency effect does not apply to basketball perfectly. Instead, we use a mangled, twisted version of it. In the theoretical sense, the recency effect indicates that the most recent events will become the most vivid memories, but in the NBA, it merely makes us place more import on the twilight of a career than we should.
The end of a career won't trump the highlights that occurred during the peak, but it will matter when evaluating a player's legacy.
Kobe must be aware of this if he wants to be remembered as the greatest Laker of all time. Chasing numbers and achievements is fine, but not if it causes him to stay long past his prime.
Knowing when to hang it up can be just as important to a player's legacy as knowing how to win championships.